'EARTH STORY' DVD BOX SET (BBCDVD3380) RELEASED IN JUNE 2011.
Tombstone, Arizona, 1881. The air is filled with the sounds of shooting, cussing, and toe-tapping tunes knocked out on the battered piano at the Last Chance Saloon. And then there is something less familiar: the wheezing, groaning sound of a Police Box materialiSing.
The Doctor and his companions aren’t the only newcomers in town. The Clanton brothers have ridden in to settle a grudge with Doc Holliday, the notorious gambler, drinker, and dentist. In the Wild West, tempers are short, guns are swift, and a moment’s hesitation on the draw can mean death.
30TH APRIL 1966 - 21ST MAY 1966
1. A HOLIDAY FOR THE DOCTOR
2. DON'T SHOOT THE PIANIST
3. JOHNNY RINGO 4. THE OK CORRAL
The Gunfighters has long since held a position of notoriety amongst Doctor Who serials. Whilst its viewing figures weren’t all that poor, its audience appreciation score was. In fact, so pitiable was its approval rating – 30% – that to this day there isn’t another Doctor Who story that has gone down as badly with the viewing public. However, The Gunfighters’ numerous repeats and commercial releases in recent years have prompted its widespread re-evaluation, at least by predisposed fans of the series. Running through Corridors authors Rob Shearman and Toby Hadoke have praised its dry comedy, while About Time authors Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles have hailed it as “the first Western made for British television.”
And to be fair to The Gunfighters, it is a very funny piece. Perhaps not in the way that writer Donald Cotton intended it to be, I’ll grant you, but watching it again certainly made me smile. I understand that William Hartnell had been lobbying the production team to do a Western for some time, and so he really throws himself into the pastiche here, flexing slapstick muscles that he can’t have used since his Carry On days. Meanwhile, poor Peter Purves is forced to endure indignity upon indignity - as if having to put on a Yankee drawl that makes Morton Dill sound eloquent wasn’t bad enough, he was made to sing one of the most dire saloon songs conceivable. It’s so very painful that it’s hilarious. Even Jackie Lane’s Dodo Chaplet is not as exasperating as usual here - in fact this is probably her least offensive outing. For once her inherent stupidity and feeble-mindedness are in accord with the events unfolding around her.
What’s more, as British telly’s first stab at a Western, The Gunfighters looks remarkably good on screen, particularly with monochrome smoothing its rough edges. It would be easy to scoff at the production values when comparing it to a modern effort, but when we measure it against Marco Polo’s Cathay or even The Romans’ Rome it ticks all the same boxes, and in addition throws in a buxom belle. The shoot-out in “The OK Corral” (which would be the last televised episode to carry an individual title until Rose, almost forty years later) looks particularly wonderful, provided that you can forgive the dramatic liberties Cotton took concerning it.
Above: Mary Tamm’s seen it in the Times - Tomorrow’s Times
Where the serial falls down though is in its plot. The total sum of the narrative can be inferred from the pun in the first episode’s title, “A Holiday for the Doctor”, and as I’ve intimated above, the historical backdrop that it is set against is far less truthful than even the most laissez-faire Hartnell-era historicals. At best it’s not edifying; at worse it’s misleading. The final nail in the serial’s coffin is the soundtrack, which makes watching the four episodes a teeth-gritting test of endurance. How many times can you stand to hear the same excruciatingly awful refrain? Tristram Cary’s Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon bookends almost every scene, and so if you’re intrepid enough to watch the whole serial in a single sitting, by the end of it I swear that you’ll feel your grip on sanity beginning to slip. At least when it first aired, The Gunfighters’ assault on the eardrums was spread out over the course of a month. I remain convinced that, but for this awful tune, The Gunfighters would have gone over far better with its audience.
The DVD’s bonus material does an admirable job of championing the serial’s commendable traits. The commentary is moderated by the abovementioned Mr Hadoke, who besides being a fountain of trivia and minutiae throughout, also acts as an eloquent and near-convincing defender of this ill-reputed tale. He also serves a more mundane function as catalyst for the buried memories of most of the contributors, who include production assistant Tristan de Vere Cole and several supporting actors - as well as one man who will never, ever forget the horrors that this production subjected him to.
The disc also includes the first Doctor’s instalment of Tomorrow’s Times, which is slightly glossier than the other Doctors’ editions that we’ve had to date. Besides being delivered by a smouldering, businesslike Mary Tamm, this fascinating programme takes in the papers’ reactions to everything from the Kennedy assassination to the Peter Cushing spin-off movies.
Above: Donald Tosh discusses how Doctor Who nearly reached The End of the Line
The most extraordinary feature of all though is the forty-five minute End of the Line. Written by Jonathan Morris, this outstanding documentary covers the final third of Bill Hartnell’s reign, boasting candid contributions from many of the era’s companions; then-script editor Donald Tosh; new series writer Garth Roberts; and fan Ian Levine. There was so much for this programme to cover – O’Brien and Lane’s impromptu departures; Anneke Wills and Michael Craze’s troubled relationship with Hartnell; incoming producer Innes Lloyd’s “dumbing down” of the show; Hartnell’s illness, the vascular dementia that presented secondary to it, and his subsequent decline – yet the programme juggles them all masterfully, resulting in one of the most informative and engrossing features that the range has produced to date.
It’s hard to believe that the same season which spawned an intergalactic blockbuster such as The Daleks’ Master Plan, a brutal historical the calibre of The Massacre, and even mind-bending serials like The Celestial Toymaker could churn out a cut-price Western lampoon, but churn it out it did. Is its shameful reputation warranted? I don’t think so. The Gunfighters might not be Doctor Who’s finest hour, but there are worse serials out there. Whether you’ll find one with a thinner plot and as annoying a jingle, however, is another matter.
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